Nato adds fuel to Balkans arms race: Robert Block reports that Turkey and Greece are receiving huge amounts of heavy weapons

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NATO, with political and financial backing from Britain, has been fuelling a Balkan arms race and may be inadvertently providing the area with free heavy weapons for use in a wider regional war.

Under a programme known as 'Cascade', Nato countries whose forces exceed limits set by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, are passing on, free of charge, surplus weapon systems to less well-supplied allies. The main beneficiaries are Greece and Turkey - the two countries which analysts fear will be slugging it out should the war in former Yugoslavia spill over into Macedonia or Kosovo.

Through the process now under way, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands are transferring about 3,000 tanks, armed combat vehicles and artillery pieces to Greece and Turkey. When the transfers began last year, Greece had 1,879 tanks. To date, Cascade has provided it with 916 more - a 48.7 per cent increase - according to figures compiled by the British American Security Information Council (Basic), a London-Washington think-tank. The same information shows Turkey started with 3,928 tanks and has so far received 1,057, a nearly 27 per cent increase.

'One of the dangers of the situation in Yugoslavia is that the conflict may spill over to engulf neighbouring countries. Nato may be contributing to this,' a Basic report said.

A largely overlooked by-product of the CFE treaty, Cascade flies in the face of declarations and promises by Western governments in the wake of the Gulf war not to put arms into known areas of tension.

Under Cascade, Greece and Turkey are supposed to destroy their old weapons systems when new equipment arrives. However, independent British and American defence experts say that Greece and Turkey are apparently failing to do so, raising fears that Nato is turning the region into a dumping ground for arms. According to a Nato source speaking when the programme started in August 1992, the transfer of heavy weapons 'will significantly improve Turkey's fighting capability'.

Both Greece and Turkey are members of the Alliance, but have engaged in a dispute over the Aegean Sea for decades. Their relations have been further strained by the growing tension in Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. Basic and other groups have called on Western governments, including Britain, to review the programme in the light of changing international circumstances and the widely-held fear that the Yugoslav conflict is in danger of spreading.

Although Britain has on several occasions expressed its fear of another Balkans war, the Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, in a letter to Basic's director, Daniel Plesch, dismissed concerns over Cascade. 'I do not see that the tragic events in the former Yugoslavia provide a reason to change the rationale of the programme,' he wrote.

He also said: 'Although the UK is not participating in the cascading programme, we believe that it complements the process of adopting the Alliance's structures to the new security environment in Europe.'

Despite Mr Rifkind's assertion, UK contributions to Nato's infrastructure programme go towards covering transportation of the equipment, and the programme clearly has British political support.

The US favours a strong Turkey so that it can act as a credible leader, whereas Russia, Serbia, Greece and some West European powers are worried about the prospects of what they see as an Ottoman revival.

Defence analysts say cascading is even more alarming when viewed with other modernisation programmes which are under way: both Greece and Turkey are upgrading their naval and air forces.